Project XRW: Flying Dreams Over Sebastian

For two days in January, Raise the Sky partnered with the Skydive Sebastian dropzone and Skydive Chicago to begin a bold expansion of Project XRW. The main goals were to fly the largest mixed canopy-wingsuit flocks ever attempted, to include new wingsuit pilots, and to raise awareness for the Flying Dreams project that brings skydivers into under-resourced schools to connect with kids.

I remember the first time I pulled my new wingsuit out of the box, zipped it on, and flew towards PD Factory Team member Jessica Edgeington under her 71 square foot Velocity. In September 2010 the sight of the canopy, the lines, and Jess’s body coming closer and closer – and then stopping next to me, in freefall – was almost too cool, and crazy, to process.

Fast forward to January 2012. I’m in the door of Skydive Chicago’s Otter over Sebastian’s blue coastline, giving the count to lead six wingsuiters and two videographers down to a 3-way canopy formation. As I fly in, I’m focused on dialing in my no-contact slot so I’m symmetrical with Jessica and Mike Swanson on the other side, at the front of a 9-way. We’ve come a long way, and the more amazing stuff we accomplish, the more there is to learn and wonder at.

The expanded Project XRW Sebastian team accomplished incredible things. The 8- and 9-way flocks were bigger and more challenging than the few smaller, groundbreaking flocks we did at Skydive Elsinore just over a year ago. Edgeington, Jonathan Tagle, Ian Bobo, Jeff Nebelkopf, Will Kitto, and I represented the core founding team. We invited Mike Swanson, Roberta Mancino, Barry Holubeck, Jhonathan Florez, and Mark Harris to fly with us. Raise the Sky’s Eli Bolotin not only stepped up to the plate as our ground crew coordinator once again, but also took on a data collection role. Bionic Avionics sponsored FlySight GPS units for the team, and Eli employed the use of a slightly less high-tech bathroom scale from WalMart to complete our analytical tool kit.

From wing loadings to vertical speeds, we are gathering more and more data from the FlySight GPS units, and we hope to use this information to make Project XRW cooler and safer. Our vertical flocking speeds tended to be in the 32-35 mile per hour range, and canopy pilot wing loadings ranged from 2.7 to 3.2. Jessica Edgeington wore so much weight she wouldn’t have been able to walk to the plane if she didn’t adhere to a notoriously hardcore workout schedule.

Remember when you had never heard of XRW? Well, now we have sub-disciplines. We are learning a lot about engineering and flying no-contact mixed flocks as our numbers expand. For the first time, a group of wingsuiters flew a tight formation inside a 3-way canopy flock. We began to strategize about what’s possible given what we know about burbles and break-offs.

After our flocking goals were achieved, several of us went out to try a 2-stack of Velocities and a wingsuiter surf-style docked underneath. It was the sunset load of the last day, and I had first shot at the dock. Bobo and Tagle got linked up and were flying steady, but as I approached I realized too late that the fall rate of a 2-stack was drastically different from what we had been doing all day, and I blazed past it with too much forward speed – waving hi to Bobo on the way. Will Kitto had followed me to the formation, and had enough reaction time to slow down his forward speed. With a few tries in the remaining altitude, he managed to get linked up with Bobo, and Nebelkopf filmed from above as I laughed my way down to pull altitude with Florez, who had also misjudged the fall rate.

After our last sunset jump, many of us sat down for a Skydive Radio roundtable interview at a picnic table over a few beers. As a group, we contemplated out loud about the newness of it all, and how high-performance canopy lines are less like a web and more like a cheese slicer (see “What can possibly go wrong?”). Team bonding had begun.

The morning after the Project concluded Edgeington, Tagle, Eli Bolotin and I drove to Vero Beach Elementary School to meet with principal Bonnie Swanson and a class of second graders who were extremely knowledgeable about human flight already. When asked what skydivers do, responses included, “they jump and then they ride their parachutes softly to the floor. Also they sometimes jump off cliffs and it’s awesome! And they have to know what the wind is!”

Nearly all of the students at the school are in need of subsidized or free lunches, and many are homeless. We plan to return with more PD Factory Team members in April, when we will spend more time with kids and continue to develop relationships with them. The Flying Dreams project is as much about articulating our core values to ourselves as it is about sharing those values with others.

Team XRW takes risks, and sometimes, we fail. When we don’t make it, we encourage each other to go up and try it again. In skydiving as in life, when you’re still figuring stuff out, you have to do it more than once. Kids who start out with the socio-economic deck stacked against them need that teamwork and confidence as much as we do. Luckily, Skydive Sebastian made us look good even when, as part of the learning process, a formation was less than perfect. And the Skydive Chicago Otter was there, waiting to help us try it again.

What can possibly go wrong?

Just in case you were starting to think it’s easy…

Exits: For wingsuiters, flying larger suits and being very focused on watching and following canopy pilots that can be hard to see out the door creates a higher risk of a tail strike.

Approach: Collisions are always a danger, as in any formation flying. Wingsuit flyers aiming at canopies must have them visible at all times on the approach and take great care in being precise with their aim and flight path. Multiple wingsuits on approach towards canopies need to also be aware of each other to avoid a collision. Finally, high performance canopy flocking comes with its own set of risks, and adding wingsuiters takes away much of a canopy pilot’s range to use evasive maneuvers.

Relative Work: A wingsuiter creates the same vortices that a canopy creates, and just as two canopies move towards each other when bumping end cells, a wingsuiter can get sucked into a canopy’s burble, leading to injuries from contact with taught lines (“like a cheese slicer”) and the possibility of a difficult malfunction for the canopy pilot.

Surf-style docks could result in a premature deployment as the canopy pilot may engage in some some aggressive handling of the wingsuiter’s rig.

When flying smoke to highlight flight paths, chunks can fly off from smoke canisters without screens on them, risking hitting others in the formation because of the different positioning of wingsuiters relative to canopy pilots.

Breakoff: Wingsuiters flying in front of canopies have the potential to burble the high performance parachutes, which can cause malfunctions.

Landing: For canopy pilots, the risks of landing very highly loaded canopies have been well documented. Trim tabs add another layer of risk.